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Giving Back to Her Pack

Sarah Ash leaning against a tree

Written by Lea Hart

There is often a story or a personal connection behind the gifts Sarah Ash, professor emerita for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has given to CALS and North Carolina State University over the years.

An endowed professorship in honor of her parents; a scholarship named for a woman who lived nearly 100 years ago; and support for study abroad that recognizes how powerful that experience can be for students from rural counties and all students in general – Ash can clearly define the reasons for her gifts.

It began with the gift to honor her parents. The two were faculty members at a land grant university in Connecticut. She and both of her older brothers followed suit as university professors, with Ash landing at NC State University in 1987. When she began to think about giving back, she thought about her own history.

“I have deep roots in academia,” Ash said. “My parents were not able to create an endowment but endowments were created in their honor when they passed away.”

“That planted the idea in my head.”

It led Ash to create an endowed professorship in nutrition as part of her estate planning.

As time went on, Ash said she felt she had some funds to donate immediately, rather than as part of her estate. That led her to support study abroad, and she’s generously done so over the past few years.

As a professor and faculty advisor for many years, Ash saw first-hand the impact that study abroad experiences has on students. She also recognizes that it can be an expensive endeavor.

“Within CALS, so many students come from rural backgrounds and they may not have the financial wherewithal to study abroad, so I started supporting study abroad recognizing the value it had for my own advisees and students,” Ash said.

Ash thought about other organizations to which she could donate, “When I think about larger gifts, I always come back to education,” she said. “I think about the rural communities – I grew up in a rural community myself.” That led her to make a gift to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ Food Youth Initiative, which works in the area of food justice.

In 2020, as she continued to think about the importance of student support, Ash established the Ellen Swallow Richards Endowed Nutrition Scholarship.

She named it for Ellen Swallow Richards, who helped found the American Home Economics Association in 1906.

“I see her as a trailblazer,” Ash said. “I found her to be a fascinating woman – she created opportunities for women through jobs in the food industry and in education.”

Not everything about Swallow Richards’ history is perfect, Ash said. However, she worked within the system and did what she could in the context of the barriers that existed for her, and made a notable impact.

Now the scholarship named for Swallow Richards is making an impact too. Allie Zucker turns 24 this year and is a senior. Getting to graduation is taking her a bit longer due to financial constraints and some other factors, she said. She is a recipient of the Ellen Swallow Richards Scholarship and said it is easing some of those challenges.

“To be given opportunities such as [this scholarship] fills me with gratitude,” Zucker said. “I chose Nutrition Science as my major not realizing the love and passion I would discover for the field.”

“Thank you to Dr. Ash who is responsible for this scholarship and for giving students like myself the opportunity to succeed.”

When Ash joined NC State in 1987, her first job was as a lab manager in what was then NC State’s Biochemistry Department.

She’d earned her doctorate in nutrition from Tufts University the year before, and as people at NC State began to hear about her background, Ash was able to transition into a role teaching an introductory course in human nutrition. At the time, the course was housed in the Department of Animal Science, created by a faculty member who thought animal science students should understand more about human nutrition, Ash said.

The longer she stayed, the more classes she taught and the more involved she became in academic advising and other university-wide initiatives. Nutrition eventually became its own major and Ash became the undergraduate coordinator for the program.

“I’ve often used my career track as an example to my students,” she said. “Sometimes you take a job and it may not be what you want for the rest of your life, but you can parlay it into something else if you make the right connections.”

She looks back fondly on more than 30 years at NC State. Faculty challenged each other in good ways; debated, talked and kept their minds active. Though she officially retired in 2019, she’s returned on a part-time basis, advising students.

“I really enjoy helping students,” Ash said. “Helping them make their way through courses and think about their career options – opening their minds can be very rewarding.”

At the same time, she says she continues to learn from students as well.

As Ash continues to give her time and her support to CALS and to the university, she encourages others to think about what matters to them. Contributions don’t have to be large to make a difference.

“I became a university professor because education matters,” she said. “If you think in those terms, as you think about where to donate – if education matters, maybe it’s not hard to think about giving back to the university.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.